Seboti Pahariya has to wait till January to rejoin school. The 17-year-old has waited five years already.
Its the middle of the school session in Assam and Seboti will join Class VII. She had to quit school five years ago when she was in Class VI to help the family deal with medical expenses of her ailing mother.
Born and raised in Amguri, 110 km from Dibrugarh, she is from a family of tea garden workers. A bindi sparkling on her forehead, red kurta with jeans and a yellow dupatta thrown casually around her neck, she made her intentions clear: “I want to study and then I want to teach.”
In 2015, her mother passed away after a long battle with mental illness that Seboti is unable to name. Soon after, her father passed away of diarrhoea.
The youngest of five siblings, she shared the responsibility of running the household with her brother, Maniram Pahariya (22) and sister-in-law Mira. Her older sisters are married and have moved out.
Seboti wakes up by 6 am, helps out with household chores, reaches the tea estate by 8 am and plucks leaves till 5 pm. She earns Rs 800 every week and hands that to her brother.
But in February this year, she joined the anganwadi in Amguri block and began interacting with others her age. She learnt about nutrition and hygiene. During weekly sessions, she came in contact with the NGO Nava Udit Samaj that works with the district administration in the block. “I learnt for the first time that as a child I have rights. I learnt about the importance of education,” she said. Her family always saw education from the expense point-of-view and did not see the value in educating the girls, Seboti said.
Her parents were unlettered and her brother is the most educated in the house, having finished Class XII.
“The subject of my marriage was brought up but with the help of the anganwari workers I was able to convince my brother to hold it off,” she said.
NGOs point to varying statistics about the declining number of child marriages in tea gardens. Reducing child marriage and teen pregnancy forms a key part of UNICEF’s adolescent project in the district.
At the anganwadi centre every Saturday, Seboti has recently undergone “folklore” training.
Young adults in the block were taught lessons of social importance through songs and dance in their own language and then encouraged to create their own. So while some penned songs about drug de-addiction and child marriage, Seboti wrote about what she missed most — school — in the Chhadri dialect spoken by tea garden workers of Assam.
At a recent talent show at the centre, she performed this song. “My friend’s father, who does not allow her to go to school, said he will allow her after he heard my song,” she said, her pride evident.
She writes about things too, her mother’s illness, her future, her village. The farthest she has been from her house, is the district centre at Sibsagar, about 30 km from home.
“One of the main reasons girls drop out of schools is the violence at home,” she said. “There was violence at home as well when my brother used to drink but after attending sessions at the anganwari I came back and told him about the affects of alcohol and how it was affecting our household.”
The Deputy Commissioner, Sivasagar, collaborated with UNICEF to conceptualise and implement the project on adolescent empowerment.
The overall goal of this project is to improve the lives of adolescents in five blocks of Sivasagar by increasing the autonomy that adolescent boys and girls have over decisions affecting their lives.
Seboti, and 24 other girls are part of this project and are finding their feet as they learn more about their bodies and their environment. In her own words, “I was fearful and did not understand my desires or a life other than that at home. I am now more confident, and I try and encourage those who come in contact with me to speak up as well.”
Till she rejoins school, Seboti will continue to write for Mukto Aakaash (an NGO-run adolescent newspaper).